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Multitudes:
the Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith

When the smog lifted -- especially, it seemed, on Sundays when automobile traffic was light -- you could rediscover Washington the beautiful. The white office buildings leapt out from the brilliant blue backdrop of the sky. If it was springtime, tens of thousands of tulips planted by the National Park Service provided a pointillist ground cover to downtown squares and circles. Along Rock Creek Parkway, daffodils proclaimed the beginning of Washington's favorite season. The city lived for spring and fall, periods separated by muggy summer and by an unpredictable yet dull winter. In the fall, the gauze of noxious gas that stretched over DC all summer was peeled away, permitting the sun a rare chance to lounge unimpeded against the sides of buildings or ricochet off spires. The air conditioner's monotone was finally silenced and the hint of chill repulsed by a friendly jacket. But the spring was even better; you quickly forgot the snow that didn't come, or that did come but all in one blizzard, and you luxuriated in a few months of unadulterated color and life. Summer was awful and in winter it was best to heed the words of Mark Twain:

When you arrived it was snowing. When you reached the hotel it was sleeting. When you went to bed it was raining. During the night it froze hard, and the wind blew some chimneys down. When you got up in the morning it was foggy. When you finished your breakfast at ten o'clock and went out, the sunshine was brilliant, the weather balmy and delicious, and the mud and slush deep and all pervading. You will like the climate-when you get used to it. . . . Take an umbrella, an overcoat, and a fan, and so forth.

Would that all critiques of the city had been as valid. No other American city had so much written and spoken about it by people who had no organic connection with it and who expended so little effort on its behalf. From presidents to Time reporters, the city was what they wished (or had time) to see, and the resulting reporting veered from descriptions of a Grossinger's for megalomaniacs to a Tolkien-like netherworld inhabited by orcs, goblins, brigands and things that go bump in the night and take all your money. The Washingtonian found few friends among those who passed through. Jack Kennedy called it a place of 'northern charm and southern efficiency.' Senate District Committee chairman Thomas Eagleton responded to a complaint that a proposed home rule bill would leave Congress with a veto over all local actions by saying, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Congressmen with impeccable liberal credentials curried favor with their conservative constituents and financial backers by supporting freeways, developers and 'law and order' schemes for the District. Such were our friends.

Then there was the legion of race-baiters, demagogues, and legislators using the District to make deals, political and business, that would have been a scandal if they had occurred in their home districts, and others who used their power over the city to make sure they got cheap liquor and cheap taxi rides.

The denigration of Washington as a place followed other paths as well. Washingtonians, told that their town was a federal city, grew up believing that this somehow prohibited the District from seeking political equality or even other sources of income such as a commuter tax. Washingtonians were taught to rely on the national government until they had lost much of their will for self-initiative. One of the hardest problems faced by anyone seeking change in Washington was what became known as the colonial mentality, a fatalistic acceptance of powerlessness in political and social life.

Washington was a city of dichotomies, contrasts, and striking inequalities. It was the capital of a major democracy that lacked local democracy. It was a citadel of power whose residents lacked power. It was a city with an excess of multimillion dollar office buildings and a shortage of housing. It was a city that was wealthier than most in which a sizable minority lives in great poverty. It had a 70 percent black population but the major decisions were still made by whites. It was a city in which the American dream and the American tragedy passed each other on the street and did not speak. It was, finally, a city that had suffered a form of deprivation known primarily to the poor and the imprisoned, a psychological deprivation born of the constant suppression and denial of one's identity, worth, or purpose by those in control. Washington to those in power was not a place but a hall to rent. The people of Washington were the custodian staff. And the renters were as likely to visit the world in which this staff lived as a parishioner is to inspect the boiler room of the church. The purpose of Washington's community was to serve not to be. Its school children were not taught the history of their city; they were told little of its significant men and women. There was no city festival or parade. In fact, this repository of national history didn't even have a local history museum. The city's present was suppressed, its future was a hostage, and its past was ignored.

This was the city that civil rights activists and other reformers determined to - and did - change. This change was cultural as well as political and increasingly the old ways and the new found themselves in conflict. For example, having discovered that there were more African-American books in the libraries in the white parts of town than in the black city, I decided I better check out the meetings of the library board of trustees. There I found not only an all-white board but a chair in his 90s serving his colleagues tea and cookies.

Leaders of a reform movement at the Edmunds-Peabody Elementary School parent body also ran up against the old ways at a meeting so heated and controversial that the citywide PTA sent its president and two vice presidents to serve as monitors. The organization's vice president, Bessie Turner, repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with instructions such as "Madame Chairman, the names of the nominated slate must be on the left hand side of the board." During a break, I attempted to engage the formidable Turner in conversation. She told me, "I'm not interested in reporters. I defy you to write anything I don't want in."

In the end, Ted Jones won the heated election for president by a vote of 28 to 26. Mrs. Turner called the new officers forward. Ramrod straight, she read from the PTA's encomium to itself as contained in its manual and instructed the audience to rise as she recited the "objects" of the organization. Asked whether they intended to help the new officers attend to their duties, the parents obediently responded, "I do." Mrs. Turner then told the officers that "I sincerely hope you will follow your manual. If you follow its provisions you will not get into any difficulty." She handed Jones his gavel but said he couldn't have the official PTA president's pin because he wasn't a woman and that the pin would be held in escrow until the election of the next woman president. And she promised to send all the new officers their own manual.

It could be funny and it could be maddening. In 1967 I expressed my frustration in a piece for a local paper written as a letter to a friend moving into my neighborhood:

Don't complain if Deborah comes home from elementary school with dirty hands. There are not enough wash basins to go around and she's just being considerate to the other kids.

Don't complain if John's junior high history text stops with the League of Nations. . .

Don't call a cab after sundown. It won't come.

Look at the underside of produce in the supermarket. If it is less than 25% spoiled, buy it. You won't do better.

Don't call policemen "boy." That's a special phrase they reserve for their own use.

Train your dog to use the first spot of grass he finds. A choosy canine around here can be very tiring.

That scrawny tree behind your house is not dead. It is called a tree of heaven and it meant to have just three leaves on each branch. It only grows in blocks with a median income of less than $3,000 a year.

It is all right to call the Post Office after the third missed mail delivery. But don't quote them that line about "neither snow nor rain not heat." They are not familiar with it. They will think you're some sort of hippy poet and will seize and burn all your mail.

Yet there was another side I attempted to describe in an article I wrote in the 1980s:

Twenty years ago this town was, in many ways, a more exciting and appealing place than it is today. I'm not talking economics here -- obviously the economic status of many Washingtonians is far better then it was two decades ago, in part because of real advances and in part be-cause the less economically successful (including many teachers, cops, and firefighters, for example) can't afford to live here anymore. And I'm not talking about changes that were national in scope, such the dramatic improvements for minorities and women.

I'm talking about the culture and spirit of the place, factors that can be quite independent of economic and social indices. I'm talking about a city where people were doing things, not just buying them and showing them off. The nouveau slick with their nouveau cliches, being consumers and parasites rather than creators and participants, wouldn't have liked it, because to enjoy the Washington of the 1960s you had to be a part of it -- you couldn't merely shop or strut in it. Its fertilizer came from a characteristic that Henry James had noted 60 years earlier an "extraordinarily easy and pleasant" quality of life. It was the unassuming aspect of Washington so hospitable to people of ideas, to artists , to dissidents of varied stripe, and to those who sought a place from which to discover or change the world.

Washington had a social elite, but it kept out of the way of the generic culture; the leading members of this elite, after all, had long ago been accurately dubbed "cave dwellers." The government loomed large, but its turf and its hours of influence: were also circumscribed. To a young person coming to Washington in the 1960s it was a frontier offering both space and opportunity. Outside of what James called the "imperial part" of Washington, if there was an elite it was of the sort well-described by E.M. Forster an aristocracy of the "sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky." The very nature of Washington as an ill-defined culture spread a welcome mat to the new. With its natural charm and physical modesty, its gentleness and lack of urban hysteria, it was a perfect place for trying what hadn't been tried before.

It worked for artists. It worked for young black activists who succeeded in changing so many political relationships in a way that their parents and grandparents could only dream about. It worked for those who believed, as one still could, that power should have some moral end. It worked for those who wanted to try out new definitions of community that would have meaning to themselves and their children It even worked for those who sought nothing more than a satisfying adulthood in a comfortable place.

o

 

The issues the Gazette covered and the causes it pressed ran the gamut. We campaigned for the then novel idea of packer sanitation trucks to replace the high sided open trash trucks. And we warned readers not put dog and cat dirt in their trash cans, quoting a trashman as saying, "How would you like to stand up in that truck in that stuff all day?'

We also quickly became a leading voice of the anti-freeway movement, and a precocious supporter of light rail and bikeways years before such phenomena became popular. Kathy would later recall going to an anti-freeway meeting and being astounded that we thought we were actually going to stop a highway. In fact, we didn't stop the one we were fighting; it sliced through Southeast Washington, dividing public housing from the rest of the community. The Gazette ran a photo two young boys looking wistfully up at "Southeast's Berlin Wall." But before it was all over, people like us all over DC had stopped hundreds of lane-miles that would have made the city look like an east-coast Los Angeles.

There was always something to save - such as the 200-old trees in Lincoln Park - and something to promote -- such as a new swimming pool - and something to cover - such as activists Janie Boyd and Marguerite Kelly, who were taking on the local supermarket chains. They challenged quality disparities between outlets in different parts of town and campaigned for the open dating of meat. Meat at that time was dated with a code known only to supermarket employees. The Gazette took the bold position that "an understandable date on each package of meat would be of considerable value to the shopper," noting that "we have shared with other consumers the experience of having meat go bad soon after it has been brought home and put in the refrigerator."

The consumer activists also went comparison shopping, coming up with prices at inner city Safeways up to a third higher than those in a white section of town. Further they demonstrated that prices were hiked when welfare checks came out.

During congressional hearings, Rep. Henry Reuss double-checked the figures at lunch time, returning to the hearing room with bags of groceries that he placed on the podium. When a Safeway official blamed some of the price differences on human error, Reuss responded, "In an hour and half I found quite bit of human error."

We also ran a feature on Jane Hardin who had opened a combination laundromat and legal services office on Pennsylvania Ave., where on the first day someone stuck a quilt into a washer, jamming up the pipes. And we wrote about community police officer Ike Fulwood who, as we drove past some grim public housing, remarked, "There's trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing." Fulwood would eventually become the city's chief of police.

But things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America's cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to involvement in community problems The group, the Gazette reported, "intends to deal with such issues as employment, welfare, safety, health, housing, recreation and urban planning."

In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black.

Among our purposes:

To share our group differences so we can increase our knowledge of one another's group positions, plans and needs.

To increase opportunities to share our group concerns so that we can better support one another's group efforts.

To obtain full representation for our community in civic and governmental affairs.

To unite in common action where we have agreement.

Your participation in the Council does not commit your organization to any position or organizational arrangement.

In February 1968, I wrote in the Gazette:

As contrary as the thought is to our national self-image, it is entirely possible that we are giving up the struggle to solve the deepest problems of our cities. . . National Guard troops are undergoing special training. Hotlines are being established. Armored trucks are being purchased. Police riot equipment is being beefed up. . . .Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General, was probably correct when he told a group of police chiefs and city officials recently that the nation's power to deal with urban riots is increasing faster "than the underlying layers of frustration that cause them."

On March 6, I wrote a prospective member

Although the Leadership Council has yet to establish a formal structure, the present trend appears to be in favor of a loose federation of leaders, relatively unstructured, and designed so we can act effectively when we have agreement but not get hung up when we don't.

In the issue that appeared in late March, I wrote:

It seems like a lot of people, both the militants and the extremist moderates, are putting down Martin Luther King. I share some of the doubts that have been expressed as to whether his efforts this spring will make any difference. On the other hand, I wonder whether anything will. MLK does have one big factor in his favor. He is doing something. Congress isn't. The White House isn't. The District isn't. The Urban League isn't. Stokely isn't. Possible or impossible, King's show is the best we have in town this spring and it behooves all who would like to see some changes made to lend a hand.

That same month, the US Court of Appeals ordered the city to halt construction on four major sections of the city's freeway system. For a change, it looked as if we might be winning.

o

H STREET BURNING AS SEEN FROM THE AUTHOR'S ROOF FOUR BLOCKS AWAY

On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor's house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.

The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office a few blocks away to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn't have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.

There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.

We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.

 

DC FIRE DEPARTMENT PHOTOS

 

At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn't in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.

That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want t alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.

For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration and helplessness washed up on my mind's shore.

I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.



WASHINGTONIANA DIV DC PUBLIC LIBRARY

 

H STREET THE MORNING AFTER
PHOTO BY SAM SMITH

The strange ambivalence of the riots -- the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple's home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation -- made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out. For months after, when sporadic violence hit stores in our neighborhood, I expected to find our newspaper office smashed and looted. It wasn't, despite the inviting glass storefront. I was inclined, with normal self delusion, to attributed this to having paid my dues. It was more likely that our second hand electric typewriters weren't worth the candle when there was a whole Safeway up the street and a cleaners right on the corner.

Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.

Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasé. A lady walked into the store one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, said, "Isn't that a Communist paper?"

"Oh no," Len replied cheerfully. "The editor's a communist but the paper isn't."


THE EMPORIUM, OWNED BY LEN KIRSTEN (IN BLACK HAT)

On the other hand, Lee, of Helen & Lee's Chinese carryout was totally indifferent to politics. Lee and his wife ran a regular ad bragging that the carryout had been recommended by their four doctor sons. One of the items on the menu was a pork chop sandwich -- the chop still on a bone slapped between two pieces of Wonder Bread. After Helen died, the sign over the door was changed to read: & Lee's Carryout.

Another favorite advertiser was Harry Spack, owner of Spack's Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also "the world's smallest bar" -- a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles.

"Now someday this place is going to have class," Spack told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. "You know -- cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance," he said as he reached for an object under the counter, "this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?"


LOCAL PUB - WHICH FEATURED A SINGER NAMED ROBERTA FLACK - TAKING PRECAUTIONS FOLLOWING THE RIOTS

SAM SMITH PHOTO

The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street. I wrote:

The destruction did not end with the quelling of the riot and the removal of federal troops who had guarded the area after being called in by city officials. Sporadic arson occurred, primarily along H Street, doing hundreds of thousand of dollars additional damage. . . Reaction varied from the intense anger of many white merchants at the failure of police to shoot looters to the feeling on the part of some community leaders that a new opportunity had been created to correct old economic and social wrongs.

During the riots, Mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that "you can replace material goods, but you can't replace human beings." Hoover then said, "Well, this conversation is over." Replied Washington, "That's all right, I was leaving anyway."

One white businessman, Milton Hoffman of Art Young's clothing store, which had been burned in the riot, proposed a one percent of gross sales contribution by businesses to be used for community projects. Black businesses posted large "soul brother" signs on windows and walls. Private social agencies and anti-poverty centers were left alone. A laundry near the US Marine Barracks received special attention; guards with fixed bayonets protected the troop's clothing inside. The riots had created their own rules.

PHOTO BY SAM SMITH

At the time of the riot early 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.

Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers, Tom Torosian, Jesse Anderson and Ralph Dwan held a sunrise service on 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.


SAM SMITH PHOTO

The riots weren't the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street wouldn't really return for decades. A real estate dealer's home was fire bombed as was a local settlement house. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived and people like me were out.

The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. H Street, with its jagged free standing walls and piles of rubble, looked like photos from a World War II retrospective. For me, hope had lost its virginity. There was no work for a white editor in a black neighborhood anymore. If I was to talk to anyone now, they would have look a lot more like me.

To be sure, a bi-racial slate of reform Democrats was elected in early May as convention delegates and central committee members. The slate included both Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy supporters, united in a desire to defeat the locally popular Hubert Humphrey. I won one of McCarthy's slots on the party central committee. McCarthy had stated that he wanted no part of a coalition but some of his supporters, including myself, disagreed and so worked out a deal. A few days before the riot, the anti-war Democrats for Peace and Progress held a neighborhood convention in Capitol East. Five persons -- a community organizer, a minister , a physicist, a school lunch clerk, and myself -- were nominated. To my surprise, the Kennedy organization accepted us as well as other McCarthyites from around the city.

It was an unprecedented relinquishment of political power to mere party members and it produced an unusual slate that included community organizers and college professors, mothers on welfare and lawyers, black militants and a white philanthropist. Possibly no slate in America has ever been so varied.

The slate also included Sophie Reuther, wife of Victor Reuther. A former union organizer, she had once jumped out of a second story window to escape armed KKKers who had been set upon the union at the urging of management. Recalled Victor later, "She went underground and it took me three days to find her." It was not a singular incident. On Sophie's 25th birthday, her party had been interrupted by two gun-wielding company thugs who forced their way in and began pistol-whipping Walter Reuther, her brother-in-law.

Our campaign was short, lasting about month and for some of us election day began to close rapidly before we had any notion of what we were supposed to be doing. Typical of our appearances was a "debate on Vietnam" before a group of 12 persons. Since my opponent was also opposed to the war, our confrontation was rather turgid. We were preceded by a couple of 14th Precinct cops who promised to get an abandoned car towed away and to take action on other matters less cosmic than withdrawal from Southeast Asia. I was glad the policemen were not running for office. Still we knew we had support. A poll taken by a community group found that 44% already favored an end to the war's escalation and to the bombing of North Vietnam.

I was second from the end of the ballot which hardly boded well for my political career. I contemplated the slogan, "Roses are red, violets are blue; you'll find me listed at the end of page 2." Another more Stevensonian phrase briefly crossed my mind: "Vote for the penultimate candidate." I eventually settled on a flyer which proclaimed that "The District's Friend is Second from the End," which was never circulated because a fellow candidate pointed out that it violated a cardinal political rule against "single-shooting" on a slate.

Another political lesson came from a friend who upbraided me for having passively accepted my full name on the ballot. He said I should have gone immediately into court. The publicity alone would have been worth 1,000 votes.

Eventually I did most of what a good candidate should. Kathy and I even participated in one and a half parades. We didn't quite make through the second one owing to our VW's weak battery.

On election day I stood outside my precinct distributing sample ballots. The Humphrey people were there too, but our main competition came from a man who accosted as many voters as he could and read them a two-page polemic against the police department for having stolen his watch three years earlier.

Inside my wife served as a Kennedy poll watcher in what was DC's second election after a century of a full colonialism. Early in the morning the precinct election official had hung some political posters to decorate the drab voting area. Kathy indicated that the posters were nice but illegal. She also met a lady whose name she could not find on the voter list and who told her, "Oh, you won't find me. I'm just here from Philadelphia visiting my aunt and I thought I'd come by." Kathy thanked her and suggested that her vote might better be cast in Philadelphia.

Late in the afternoon, I moved to a corner with my card file of known favorable voters who had yet to cast a ballot, dispatching a small squadron of volunteer kids to remind them. We won and the next day, the Evening Star offered this editorial comment on the new Democratic Central Committee:

They are likely to be more militant, more aggressive and more insistent on direct participation in local affairs. What this bodes for the community remains to be seen.

With such unbridled enthusiasm from the establishment, we were off to a good start.

Then, one month later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, completing the hat trick of evil begun four years earlier with the killing of his brother, followed by the slaying of Martin Luther King. While the other deaths may have been more tragic to more people, in one respect RFK's was the most profound, for it appeared to shut the door on hope. What had been with his brother a grim anomaly had turned into a grisly habit. I wrote about it on June 7, 1968, two days after Kennedy was shot. He had died a day later:

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of his associates is said to have told another: "The time will come when we shall laugh again; but we shall never be young again."

The comment, I suppose, was about those closest to the dead president, but it also contained a truth for the country. As I sat before a television set the last few days, attempting to sort the emotions marching through my mind, the thought that kept coming back was how weary, how old, we had all become. The inertia of age had settled upon the nation in the years following John Kennedy's death it seemed, and now we were stoically acting out one more scene in an unrelieved tragedy.

There were attempts to respond to the slaying of Robert Kennedy with affirmations of a will to change the old ways, but they appeared hollow. The nation had watched John Kennedy die and had not changed; it had watched Martin Luther King die and had not changed. Now it watched Robert Kennedy die and even the most effervescent and optimistic among us could not summon a viable vision of a new order to lessen our brooding. . .

The central point of the tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.

Their deaths leave us shaken, fearful and alone because we had been so willing to share their vitality only vicariously. We permitted them to affirm for us rather than with us. Their stature was increased by our common weakness as much as by their individual strength. They were exceptions, when they should have been the best among many. . .

In the excruciating hours following the shooting of Robert Kennedy a soft-drink commercial interrupted the coverage of the event and on the screen came images of young men and women romping across the sand of a beach with hair waving, teeth glistening, and cans of soda held high. There was an ersatz gaiety to the scene. So strained was the laughter that one could not help sense an absence of joy.

And then, as suddenly as the 60-second artifice had come, it was gone and we were back with Kennedy again. And in the film clips of the campaigning there was hair waving and people moving with enthusiasm and glistening teeth. But this time it was real. And there were the pictures of the campaign ballrooms of Kennedy and McCarthy after the shooting and the hair hung limp on young foreheads, the lips pursed tight over the teeth and there were tears. And that was real too. And I thought of the commercial and said to myself, sell your damn soda but leave us at least real laughter and real tears. .

Robert Kennedy was no artifice. No one had packaged him. His political career might have been smoother if they had. He stood before us as a man, with his faults and virtues on view. I was among those who were quick to criticize him. I make no apologies for that other than to say that I, like many, overestimated his capacity for cynicism and underestimated his capacity for compassion. But that is no matter.. . For unlike many politicians, Kennedy did not seek mindless adulation. He asked to be listened to, challenged, questioned and tested. And he, in turn, expected to listen, challenge and test. . .

Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively - without waiting for someone else to do it for us - are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world.

Then, perhaps, we can become young again.


Later in June I wrote:

To a large extent, a community such as Capitol East is limited in its ability to respond with justice and adequacy to the current situation. Even if we had the will to change, we would remain hostage to the larger inertia of the nation and the city.

In September I wrote:

The Republicans have nominated Richard Nixon for president. The Democrats have nominated Hubert Humphrey for president. The reading scores of Capitol East schools are lower than ever. Some 9th Precinct patrolmen don't want to ride in integrated scout cars. Some white DC fireman don't want to use the same breathing apparatus as black firemen. Congress has passed, and the President has signed a bill ordering the District to complete a freeway program overwhelmingly opposed by the people of the city. DC Transit wants another fare hike and the transit commission says there's nothing it can do about it. . . We could write an editorial on each of these items, but they'd all be pretty much the same. From the mundane to the cosmic, it's been a busy month. We think we'll just wait until October and hope things get better.

About six months later, I folded the Capitol East Gazette into the DC Gazette, a publication more like the many underground papers sprouting throughout America. I wrote:

We have decided to suspend publication of the Capitol East Gazette. Our reason for this change is that we have been unable to develop either the advertising base or the paid circulation within Capitol East to support a separate community paper. For more than three years, we have tried very hard to make the Capitol East Gazette a self-sustaining paper. . .

This was a sad and difficult decision to make. We believe, however, that the DC Gazette which shows considerable potential, is a logical extension of the type of reporting and commentary we have been doing in the Capitol East community. The most serious problems of our neighborhood in the areas of schools, housing, transportation, police, racism and the like, are citywide. We hope that the DC Gazette can help the many neighborhoods that make up the District tackle these problems together.

Later I would explain it by saying that it seemed like too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers, but it wasn't really funny. And it still hurts.

Copyright 1997 Sam Smith

M U L T I T U D E S
An Unauthorized Memoir
by Sam Smith

GEORGETOWN: A child of contradictions

GHOSTS: The ubiquitous past

BECOMING: Playing with and putting away childish things

FRIENDS A Quaker education

SUMMER

MAGNA CUM PROBATION: Falling from grace at Harvard U

THE CANARIES IN STUDIO A  in which a young radio reporter learns a lot about the media and Washington in a short time.

SUSPECT: The author becomes a 23-year-old suspected spy.

HOOLIGAN DAYS: A memoir of the Coast Guard

SEEDS The 60s before they became the 60s; in which your editor discovers the civil rights and anti-war movements.

HOW THE TROUBLE BEGAN:   A long adventure in alternative journalism began in the mid-sixties

FIRE: The Washington riots and other suspensions of hope

PLACE: The battle for local power

DC DIARY: THE SEVENTIES

DC DIARY: THE EIGHTIES

DC DIARY: THE NINETIES

THE LONELIEST MILE IN TOWN:  Adventures in apostasy

GROWING GREEN The birth of a movement

DC DIARY: THE NEW CENTURY

REBEL

 

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